Tiger's Eroding Fear Factor

Tiger’s Eroding Fear Factor

Tiger Woods is playing his first event since the birth of his daughter.
Hunter Martin/Getty Images

BETHESDA, Md. — Time magazine's Person of the Year was not a person but a mirror, "The Sopranos" ended without an ending and soon Barry Bonds will become baseball's new home run king. Sort of. But Floyd Landis is most definitely your reigning Tour de France champion, and you'd better believe Tiger Woods owns golf, especially the majors, especially on Sunday.

Welcome to the Age of Ambiguity, where you can pretty much torpedo every ending you thought you knew in advance.

After losing the lead on Sunday at the Masters and the U.S. Open this year, the first two times he'd ever lost after leading on the final day of a major, Woods will try to get back to his winning ways at the AT&T National at Congressional Country Club this week.

"I had my opportunity to get it done, and it just didn't work out," Woods said at his standing-room-only press conference Tuesday. "I thought I played better at the U.S. Open than I did at the Masters. I hit the ball certainly a lot better. I actually putted better but I just kept leaving myself these putts from 15 feet that kept breaking four or five feet, and I just kept — I never got the ball in a spot where I could basically give it a run."

Between diaper changings and feedings at home, where his wife, Elin, is caring for their 2-week-old daughter, Sam Alexis, Woods said he had a moment to look at the tape of Angel Cabrera's victory at Oakmont, specifically his birdies.

"They were all easy leaves," Woods said. "They were all uphill."

Be that as it may, no one, least of all Woods, is used to seeing golf's alpha dog cough up a hairball on Sunday. Notah Begay III, who roomed with Woods and was his fraternity brother at Stanford, had a slightly different explanation. Rather than fault Woods, he credited Zach Johnson and Cabrera for refusing to wilt under pressure.

Woods's recent inability to close has been the source of speculation, much of it centering around his divided attention as he juggles parenthood, hosts a new Tour event this week and designs his first golf course in Dubai. But Begay said Woods's intimidation factor had eroded, the critical blows coming from Cabrera, Johnson and Rich Beem, who beat Woods down the stretch at the 2002 PGA Championship.

"It's like the old four-minute mile marker; once somebody [broke] it, then everybody got it in their mind that they can do it," Begay said. "He's going to have to elevate if he's going to sort of re-instill that fear in everybody."

How does he elevate?

"He'll find a way," Begay said with a smile.

Woods played a practice round early Tuesday with Begay and "didn't miss a shot," according to one observer. He worked with instructor Hank Haney in Florida before coming to D.C. and said he got out to the practice range even before his swing coach got to Orlando. But the big news came when Woods revealed that Elin was admitted to the hospital with "complications" on June 14, the first day of the U.S. Open, providing yet another possible explanation for why he was not at his competitive best.

"Every day," he said, when asked how often he was in contact with his wife. "We talked all the time. Everything was all right. I mean, it wasn't life-threatening or anything, but she just had a few problems and had to be admitted. It wasn't easy. It was not easy because I wanted to be there. And the doctor and Elin said, 'There's nothing you can do. So go out there and get a W.'"

Woods would not speculate on what he would have done had he forced a Monday playoff with Cabrera. Sam Alexis was born at 1:30 a.m. Monday.

"That night was infinitely more rewarding than any W could have been," he said.

"I definitely don't sleep now," he added. "[Monday] night was kind of interesting, my first night away from home, and I had to wake up basically every 45 minutes."

Woods spent months answering questions about the AT&T. How many guys would get to play in this invitational? (120) How many stars would change their schedules at the 11th hour to accommodate Woods? World No. 2 Phil Mickelson's surprising announcement that he would play, despite a wrist injury that wrecked his chances in the U.S. Open three weeks ago, was a clear victory for the AT&T and an olive branch to golf's No. 1. Jim Furyk, Adam Scott and Vijay Singh are also here, leaving no question as to Tiger's influence.

The crowd was five deep as Woods worked on the range Tuesday, and fans clotted around the practice green as he grooved his stroke, guiding the putter between two tees stuck in the ground. It looked like business as usual, but this season has been anything but for Woods. He didn't win the Masters, he didn't win the Players, he didn't win the Memorial. He was close at the Open but presumably not without cigar after Sam's birth that night.

Begay is right: The fear factor is gone. The bad news for the rest of the Tour is that Woods is only 31. Odds are he'll figure out fatherhood, course design, his foundation, the AT&T and maybe even Congressional this week, as well as what became of his aura. Time is on his side, and his daughter's. Toward the end of his press conference, Woods was asked if he'd considered the proper age at which to put a golf club in Sam Alexis's hands.

"Well, it already happened," he said, breaking up the room. "She couldn't quite hold it, but it was there."

Lorena Ochoa, you've been warned.

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